For a long time now, EA and Ghost Games have been hearing the sound of Need for Speed Undergound, the chants of the fans going round and around, into the overflow, where the girls get down to the sound of the car radio. Sorry – I’ve got a little carried away there. Either way it feels like Need for Speed Heat is making overtures to that particular side of the NFS community, but that’s not the only part of the series’ long and varied history that Heat draws upon. This feels like a veritable best of collection of the series’ many forms.
The key hook here is the Jekyll & Hyde style split within the game. Taking place in the Miami-but-not-Miami Palm City, the local government has for some reason decided to shut down the city streets during the day to allow for an official and sanctioned street racing series to run. Quite how this manages to not completely tank the city’s economy, I’ll never know, but whatever. However, as soon as the sun sets on Palm City, the city no longer desires those high performance street cars, and any racing is forbidden. Naturally, the local police department is looking to crack down on this, and in the finest traditions of Hollywood and TV depictions of law enforcement, are completely and utterly corrupt.
It’s a really interesting blend. The day time races are just that, having you going purely up against the other racers on the grid, earning cash to spend on new cars and upgrades, but if you head out at night, you’re hoping to win rep instead, which goes toward… other upgrades. Of course, now you have to deal with the fuzz trying to hunt you and the other racers down, and if they catch and trap you they’ll steal your rep. While you have the finish line as your target during the day, at night crossing the finish line isn’t the end, as you’ll also have to shake off any rozzers on your tail and try to get back home to bank your rep.
This hard divide helps the game look absolutely fantastic. There’s no day-night cycle in NFS Heat, but a simple split between racing during the day and at night. That’s allowed Ghost Games to scale back the graphical demands in certain areas – dynamic shadowing be be baked in, for example – and spend that GPU budget in other areas, like a dynamic weather system. That part of the world is known for its humidity and rain showers, and it looks particularly good at night time with the rain lashing down and the world reflected in the puddles.
More than just looking pretty, Palm City’s entire design has been considered in a different way to recent games in the series. Instead of building a world and then finding racing routes within that space, Ghost Games have created racing routes and then adapted the world to include them. A few particular changes have come from this: the streets are wider than they were before, there’s often longer, more sweeping corners, and more of the scenery is destructible than before so you won’t face a hard stop from crashing into something set back from the road. You have much more license to run wide, clattering through some of the temporary barriers to a day time street circuit, and while you will lose some speed, you won’t be re-testing your car’s 0-60.
There’s been some other notable shifts as well. Ghost Games have taken a step away from the arcadey way that you could simply flick the brakes and kick out into a power slide, meaning that you need a little more skill and finesse on the throttle to get the same effect, and additionally that there’s plenty of corners where good old fashions braking, turning into the apex and accelerating out again will be quickest.
The AI difficulty should also be clearer to understand, without the easy assumption that the game’s relying on rubber-banding – Ghost Games still refute that this was the case in Payback. Now you might come to a race and simply be outclassed until you can unlock a faster car or upgrade the one you’re sat in, or find yourself haring off into the distance like a Mercedes F1 car, never really being troubled for the lead. And thankfully, they’ve ditched the upgrade cards from Payback in favour of a more straightforward upgrade system without the same kind of randomness.
In fact, it’s the most flexible it’s been in a long time, letting you buy any car you like and then tune it in whatever direction you want, whether that’s a speed demon or a drift champion. You can even perform an engine swap, putting literally any car engine into any other car, the reality of this be damned, and then tweak the engine sound to be cleaner and nicer or deeper with throaty over revving. And then you can make your car look however you want with Payback’s impressive livery editor returning, alongside a player avatar customiser.
The spice to the racing really comes when you get to the illegal night races. Beyond simply looking much cooler, there’s oncoming traffic to deal with and the quick to appear cops hounding you and the other racers. I’ve always struggled in open world games to shake off the law when they’re chasing me, and I found that here as well, especially as things escalate and they start to blockade the road (albeit with some rather handy ramps), send SWAT trucks at you head on, and get a chopper up in the sky to keep track of where you are. In the end, I was running away right up until the demo timed out on me!
Ghost Games are making all the right noises with Need for Speed Heat, and not just the sounds of engine revving. Again, it feels like a best-of game for the series – apt considering its the 25th anniversary this year – catering to both those who want straight up racing, as well as those after the thrill of escaping the cops, with the expanded car customisation and the changing philosophies for car handling and world design fans have been hoping for. With a little bit of luck it’ll live up to that promise.